McQueen looked around the transport. West and Hawkes were up in
the cockpit, he could hear them quietly planning the best
insertion. Ames was checking her pack and gear. The SAR team,
four volunteer Marines, were also doing gear checks and making
small talk. One of them was teasing Ames, she was giving as good
as she got but McQueen could see that she was paying very little
attention to the exchange. That guy didn't have a prayer of
getting to first base, although he hadn't figured that out yet.
He reached for his crutches and went up front, pulled down the
navigator's jumpseat. "What's our position?"
West gave him the coordinates. "We'll make landfall in forty
mikes. Take a look at this, sir, Crazy Judy got us some visuals."
Crazy Judy was a legend, but more than that, she was a friend.
McQueen had known her for years. Now, most people called her
"Crazy Judy" in the same tone of hushed respect that West had just
used. She headed up Saratoga's recon division, lone wolf pilots
whose talent was getting into places unseen and coming back with
intelligence data. Crazy Judy rarely flew those missions herself
any more. But when she had heard McQueen's lost sheep had been
found, she had volunteered for this one. She was the best there
was and everyone knew it. Crazy Judy was crazy like a fox.
These visuals proved it. She had a series of overlapping shots
down a canyon, starting at a drained lake where a gravel dam had
recently burst, following down the river to the wrecked capsule.
She'd had to go higher there and mist obscured the image, but the
capsule's signal light was clearly visible and so were three
chigs' suit lights. An infrared version of that same shot clearly
showed ten of the enemy. There was no sign in either shot of
Vansen and Damphousse.
Hawkes asked, "How could they not be showing up on IR?"
McQueen looked over the console to get a better view of the
monitor. "They've got to be back in the trees, the growth must be
thick enough to hide their IR signatures. Is this the best
enhancement we can get?"
"Yes, sir. The fog down there is thick enough to cut with a
McQueen asked, "Where were you planning to set down?"
West pulled up a topographical display which the computer had
created from Crazy Judy's visuals. "It looks like the canyon is
our best bet. If we fly nap of the rockball to the lake then run
the canyon, we can get almost on top of them with no chance of
being spotted. We'll only have to walk a couple of klicks."
McQueen nodded. "Sounds good, if you think you can run the
West grinned, he knew what he was doing. "No problem. We'll try
leaving the transport under cover, but if they spot it, the hell
with it, as long as you're there to keep them from stealing our
ride. You can always move it. That gives us a lot more leeway."
McQueen gave West a look. He was learning some diplomacy, that
had been a lot better way to say it than telling him to keep his
ass and his gimp leg out of the way before they had him to rescue
also. Besides that, the plan made good sense. They could get the
transport a lot closer to the extraction site if someone was there
to guard it. He wasn't about to further endanger Vansen and
Damphousse by playing dumb hero. "Good plan."
Crazy Judy's voice came over the radio. "This is the Crazy Lady
to the Sheepdog, I'm on my way back to the asylum."
"Roger that, and thank you," West replied.
"Any time, son."
Vansen and Damphousse watched the chigs poke around the edge of
the water, the first two and a couple more who had joined them.
Even with an enviro-suit none of them apparently wanted to go out
there. Which was just what Vansen had hoped for.
Finally, one of them was ordered out into the water, heading
straight for them. In a minute he was going to see them, tree or
no tree. Vansen drew her k-bar, took a deep breath, and swam
underwater to meet him. He didn't even know she was there until
she yanked him under and stabbed him, if the knife wound didn't
kill him the water pouring through the hole in his suit did. When
the other chigs realized what was up, they started shooting into
the water, she swam like hell along the bottom until she got back
to their hiding place.
Finally one of the chigs got the others to stop firing. By then
the rest of the team had come up to join them.
As the dead chig disintegrated, his suit floated to the top and
drifted back towards shore. THAT got a definite reaction from the
chigs, they were afraid of dead bodies and here was one swimming
up to join them.
One of them emptied a canister of something oily onto the water
surface and threw in what looked like a plain old-fashioned match.
The patch of oil flared up and the flames began to spread widely
across the water's surface. The chigs retreated back to what they
apparently decided was a safe distance and stood watching with
their guns ready.
When it became obvious that the flames were going to reach them,
Vansen and Damphousse ducked back under the water and swam further
out, trying to head downstream and find a place to get out where
they wouldn't be spotted. Just as Vansen's lungs were about to
burst, some big rocks provided the cover they needed. They hid
behind the rocks to catch their breath then circled back through
the thickest part of the undergrowth.
Vansen considered the wisdom of firing on the chigs, but they'd
split up again to search around the shoreline as the flames died
down. She and Damphousse headed for the cliff, and found another
hiding place up in the rocks.
Damphousse objected, "We're going to be pinned down here, Shane,
there's no other way out."
"I know. But we can't go anywhere else without being spotted. If
we're lucky we won't be spotted before the SAR team shows up. If
we aren't lucky we can hold them off a long time from up here."
`Phousse nodded and shook the water off the camo tarp, all they
could do now was wait.
McQueen watched the last of the SAR team disappear into the mist
and darkness. Ames was waiting behind as well, her gear was
neatly stacked by the ramp in case she had to grab it and run, but
unless there was a real life or death emergency she wouldn't go in
until the area was secure. She asked, "How long do you think
before we hear anything, sir?"
McQueen shook his head. He was as impatient as she was, staying
behind on the transport was every bit as bad as watching from his
bridge station as the 58th launched off the carrier. Well, he'd
just have to live with this, too. For a while anyway. "Probably
no more than half an hour, maybe less. It depends on what they
find up there."
"What was that?"
"On the screen. I thought I saw something but it's gone now."
She was scowling, from the look on her face he knew she was sure
she HAD seen something. He fine-tuned his own HUD and replayed
the tape of the last couple mikes, knowing what he was going to
find. A chig transport flying low, hidden in the clouds. It must
have set down nearby. McQueen radioed, "King, this is Queen Six,
you've got company coming. There's another chig transport in the
West's voice came back. "Acknowledged. You heard the man, we're
on the clock now. Let's do it!"
West ordered the team to spread out as they approached the wreck.
Everything was quiet. There were a lot of chig footprints in the
mud around the wreck, but there wasn't an alien in sight. He
switched his helmet radio to the 58th's usual combat frequency.
"Queen of Diamonds, this is King. You guys ready to go home now?"
"NATHAN! Roger that, King. But we're going to have some problems
getting to the taxi. The chigs have us pinned down."
"Where are you?"
"Up in the rocks at the bottom of the cliff, I'm not exactly sure
where we are in reference to the wreck. The chigs are right below
us. They haven't spotted us yet but we can't get by them."
"Sit tight, we'll find them." He ordered his squad to spread out
in the trees and keep their eyes open. They made their way
through the woods without incident. Hawkes asked, "Which way do
"See if they're down there. Don't start anything `till the rest
of us catch up, Coop."
The reply he got was a characteristic Hawkes grin. Telling Coop
to hold back was usually wasting your breath. Coop also usually
managed to land on his feet.
Hawkes ducked back into the underbrush and made his way along the
edge of the forest, five minutes later he spotted the chigs. He
whispered into his pickup, "Jack to King, I got `em. I make nine
of them. They're right past a big rock outcrop, when you see that
watch out because you're right on top of them."
"We're on our way."
McQueen had been monitoring the radio exchanges, it sounded like
they were going to take the chigs by surprise. But suddenly he
had something else to worry about -- several shots ricocheted off
the hull of the transport! He swore and slammed his hand down on
the thrusters, getting them out of the canyon. There was the
other chig patrol, lined up along the edge of the cliff! He swung
the ISSCV around and strafed the rim, the chigs he didn't get ran
for the trees.
His ear implant let him have it but good as soon as he made that
turn, though, for a few seconds he was seeing two or three of
everything in the cockpit. The vertigo went away quickly, this
time, but he didn't dare try that again. He landed them
downstream, and advised West that he had been forced to move the
Vansen and Damphousse wasted no time opening fire from their
hideout as soon as the SAR team arrived, things couldn't have gone
worse for the chigs. Caught in a crossfire, they had no
alternative but to retreat to the forest, leaving three of their
number dead. As soon as it was clear, the two stranded Marines
ran to join their rescuers. They made a fighting retreat towards
the transport, trading fire with the chigs every time either they
or the aliens had to break cover.
The Marine who had been flirting with Ames got hit in the
shoulder, he could still walk but both he and his buddy who had to
half-carry him were effectively out of the fight. In the forest,
under cover of the mist, it was hard to tell how many of the
aliens had been hit. Vansen moved up to take the place of the
injured man and got off a shot at one chig who popped out from
behind a tree. But she never knew if she hit him because she had
to go for cover herself to avoid return fire. A nearby sapling
exploded into a splinter barrage. She ducked and ran for a heavy
thicket and threw herself flat as more shots went right overhead.
She slid down a slope into a low place and ran through a shallow
creek to catch up with the others.
Under covering fire from the transport's hatch, they pelted across
a strip of open field and up the ramp. Hawkes and West barreled
past her into the cockpit as Vansen secured the hatch for liftoff.
Only then did she recognize McQueen standing right there beside
her, and it took all her self control not to fall into his arms
right there in front of everybody. Instead, they got themselves
There was no time for anything like a pre-flight checklist, West
just brought the transport's systems on line and took them up as
fast as he dared, they did NOT want to get caught on the ground if
the chigs made it back to one of their ships and came after them
with guns blazing. The sky, however, turned black outside the
ports and the stars came into view with no enemy ships rising to
greet them. Apparently they had put up enough of a fight that the
chigs were content with having defended their territory and sending
the humans scurrying back to their carrier, they saw no reason to
follow for the present.
Damphousse was looking around. She grabbed Vansen's arm.
Shane's throat closed off as she saw the devastated look in
Vanessa's eyes. "Oh....God, NO!" She looked over at McQueen, saw
the answer in his expression before she ever got the chance to ask
the question. Vanessa's heart broke before their eyes, all they
could do was hold her as her shoulders started to shake with
Memories going back to boot camp flooded back, of Paul's constant
wry humor that could always be depended upon to keep things from
getting too serious. Of his little quirky superstitions -- that
Bears shirt! Of how he had found the courage somehow to use the
wisdom he had gained from his own terrible experience on Kazbek to
comfort her after Marged. Now none of those things would be
part of their lives any more.
Her eyes met McQueen's and they both realized that there but for
the grace of Almighty God could have gone either of them. He
closed his hand over hers, and if everyone else in the bay thought
he was comforting her for the loss of their friend, they knew
better. For a moment, they held on for dear life.
After a time, Damphousse stopped crying, and wanted to know how it
had happened. It was a comfort to know that Paul had so bravely
given his life to save the colonists, and that he had surely not
suffered. His death had meant something important, it hadn't been
just another of the horrible random things that happened in war.
But nothing made up for the loss...nothing ever could.
<End Part Five>
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